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Counter-review: Babel

By Pam Cole

December 8, 2006--I saw Babel while I was in LA recently. Happens that our ace reviewer, Vince Rogers, also saw Babel the same weekend and wrote a terrific review for our website. But with all due respect to Vince and the many other reviews I've read with curiosity that panned the film as confusing and over-reaching, I had a much different take. I thought Babel was a masterpiece, worthy of a Best Picture nom.

To me, Babel was a gorgeous cinematic expression of the difficulty we all have communicating with each other, regardless of class, circumstance, or language. I didn't see four different stories in Babel; I saw at least four examples of the same story that ultimately showed how we all struggle to communicate.

With not one weak performance in the entire ranging cast, supporting actress Oscar talk has already surfaced for Adriana Barraza for her portrayal of Amelia and Rinko Kikuchi as Chieko, both relatively unknown in America. And while Brad Pitt gave one of the performances of his career (no doubt informed by his newfound parental status) he is not cited for Oscar attention. Which does nothing to diminish his role -- it merely highlights the fact that there were over 20 outstanding performances in this film. This level of acting made the dramatic experience of Babel all the more intense.

Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu (also 21 Grams) goes all around the world with his stories and characters, seriously jump-cutting from Morocco to LA to Tokyo, jolting viewers from one plotline to the next. While some found this disconcerting, to me it was a useful transitional device, guiding the audience from narrative to narrative.

The objective connection between the stories isn't revealed until near the end of Babel, but it's no huge surprise when it comes. Iñárritu uses foreshadowing throughout the film vis-à-vis television news reports and dialog to let us know that there is an actual physical connection between the four stories. Part of Babel is paying attention, looking for the clues, connecting the dots that you already know are there. This is great storytelling, interweaving rich, disparate narratives in a way that leads us to the material objective end.

However, it's the subjective connection of these stories, the struggle of all humanity to communicate clearly and truthfully, and the ways that some (not all) of the characters are ultimately able to communicate, that is the true story of Babel.

If you haven't seen Babel, stop reading here and go experience it for yourself. Pay attention to the outstanding musical score by Argentinean Gustavo Santaolalla (also Brokeback Mountain) in every scene, and the representation of a dance club as experienced by a deaf teenager. Try to overlook the overused, overactive camera movement. (It sometimes made me nauseous.) Savor the beauty of landscape and texture and color that appears despite the dizzy camera. The cinematography borders on experimental at times, so try to accept it as such.

Richard and Susan (Pitt and Cate Blanchett) are an affluent American couple trying to reconnect after losing a child. "What are we doing here?" Susan asks Richard, as she stares at the bleak surroundings of a village in Northern Africa, thousands of miles away from their home. "Being alone," he answers tellingly-- not being together, but being alone, as the two remain emotionally separated from each other even as they travel through a third-world country on an American tour bus. Eventually, they do connect, after tragedy, in great fear. After Susan is accidentally shot and seriously wounded, she must rely completely on Richard. At one point, he helps her to pee in a tin pan. This vulnerability suddenly opens the doors between them and passion, confession, and forgiveness, all at once, erupt.

Richard also tries to communicate in various ways (with varying degrees of success) with:

--his sister in America, yelling at her to listen, which she won't in her panic.
--the American embassy, who won't listen due to politics.
--the other riders on his tour bus, who won't listen due to fear, and abandon him.
--his son in America, in a powerful scene where he tries to communicate love and security while choking on his own fear.

That's just one story. There is also the Moroccan father who gives his two sons a rifle to protect the goat herd, while utterly failing to communicate how to use the rifle or the possible dangers. How many times in America do we hear the tragic stories of children killed, who don't understand the dangers of a weapon in their own home? Yes, the circumstances are utterly different, but the outcome is horribly the same in Morocco and America.

The difficulty of communicating with authority is a huge theme in Babel. It doesn't seem to matter whether it's the Morrocan police, the Mexican border patrol, or the American Embassy; it's hard to make authority figures understand, to listen without predetermined attitudes, in any country or language.

There's another fascinating story about the difficulties of communicating as a deaf person, told from a deaf person's perspective. This story is in Japanese with subtitles, a minor issue in the world of the deaf. Chieko, played by Rinko Kikuchi, has trouble communicating on many levels: she can't communicate emotionally with her father, she can't communicate desire to teenage boys who are turned off by her deafness, she can't communicate with a hearing world. Throughout her story, she uses many devices to communicate: signing, lip-reading, text messaging, writing notes in a small pad she keeps handy - emphasizing the fact that there are many ways to communicate, all of which can be misunderstood.

Finally, even though the different stories take place in different languages with English subtitles for Spanish, Arabic (I think), and Japanese at different points - we have no problem understanding and identifying with the stories. Who hasn't been angry with a sibling and threatened to tell on them? Who hasn't felt estranged from a loved one and longed to connect? Who hasn't felt desperate trying to find a babysitter? On and on the cultural differences are overridden by the emotional similarities and the difficulty of expressing these emotions that we all have.

And so much more….I will see Babel again and again, deciphering its many layers of meaning and comparing them to my own obstacles in communicating.

Did you get all that?


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